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by Yoav J. Tenembaum

Let us go back to the year 1969. The then United States President, Richard Nixon, held a meeting with the then Japanese Prime Minister, Eisaku Sato. One of the problems besetting US-Japanese relations at that time had to do with the bilateral commercial relations between the two countries. To put it in simple terms: Japan was exporting considerably more to the US than it was importing from it. So, President Nixon asked Prime Minister Sato to adopt a pro-active policy aimed at reducing Japanese exports and increasing US imports. Sato replied: “ZENSHO SHIMASU,” which literally means ‘I will do my best.’ Weeks and months elapsed and nothing happened. Nixon was furious. Didn’t Sato say that he will do his best? Yes, he did. However, the question Nixon should have asked himself was not what did Sato say, but what did he actually mean?The Japanese Prime Minister’s answer was an evasive reply. In fact, it is a polite way of avoiding any commitment, preferred to the explicit negative, which is considered rude in Japanese culture.

This case reflects a fundamental problem that exists in intercultural communication, in general, and in international diplomacy, in particular: on the one hand, we have the intention of the person conveying the message, and on the other the interpretation of the person receiving it.

Sato intended to say no, without actually saying no or anything that might even resemble a negative reply, as this would have been deemed to be rude. Nixon, for his part, interpreted Sato’s words literally, and wouldn’t have accorded it any other meaning, deriving his interpretation from a different cultural setting.

Problems in intercultural communication may be reflected verbally as well as in non-verbal manifestations. The aforementioned case is, of course, an example of intercultural communication problems as manifested in verbal terms. There are numerous examples of such intercultural linguistic misunderstandings.

Let us dwell on an example of intercultural communication problems in international diplomacy as reflected in a non-verbal manner. Two years ago, Sweden appointed a new ambassador to Iran, Peter Tejler. The newly appointed ambassador presented his credentials to the then Iranian President, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Following the official presentation of credentials, Ahmadinejad invited the Swedish ambassador to sit down and have a chat. The conversation went well until the ambassador crossed his legs and thus showed the sole of his shoe to the Iranian President. Ahmadinejad and all those present in the meeting were stunned. They couldn’t believe what they were seeing.

What happened?

In Muslim cultures showing the sole of one’s shoe to someone is considered to be rude and offensive. In order to demonstrate how offended he was, the Iranian President decided, in response, to cross his legs and show the sole of his shoe to the ambassador….

This whole episode led to a mini-crisis in relations between the two countries; a mini crisis, to be sure, that was soon resolved, but could have been avoided had the ambassador been more aware of the cross-cultural dimensions of his mode of conduct.

Again, also with regard to non-verbal manifestations of intercultural communication, there are numerous examples, the case aforementioned being a particularly noteworthy one.

What is particularly interesting in this case is that it involves a professional diplomat. One would expect a professional diplomat to be singularly aware of culture-related sensitivities. After all, professional diplomats are taught to be adept at intercultural communication.

Well, to be sure, professional diplomats ought to be more aware than others about the problems that might emerge in intercultural communication, and to be able to overcome them if necessary. That, of course, does not mean that they always are. Even professional diplomats, as we have seen in the case of the newly appointed Swedish ambassador to Iran, can fail in this regard.

This leads us to dwell on what we can call professional sub-cultures. The chances of intercultural communication problems between two individuals sharing the same profession would most probably be more limited than if the two didn’t share the same profession. Thus, a mechanical engineer from the United States and a professional colleague from, let us say, Pakistan, would be unlikely to face the same risks of intercultural communication hurdles as two individuals from the same countries who do not share the same profession.


Because, even though they each belong to a different culture, the profession they share assures them a basic common denominator, a similar professional language, so to speak. Certainly, this will not be enough to prevent problems emerging which derive from a distinct cultural background. A shared sub-culture limits the chances of intercultural communication problems. It does not prevent them altogether.

Following the same logic, the sub-culture of diplomats should ensure that the chances of intercultural communication problems are even more limited. After all, as aforementioned, professional diplomats are actually taught to deal with people from other cultures. Intercultural communication is a central feature of their profession. However, even in the case of professional diplomats, a shared sub-culture can only limit the chances of intercultural communication problems. It does not completely prevent them.

In this context, we should be careful to distinguish between a sub-culture of diplomats and a sub-culture of diplomacy.

What’s the difference between the two?

When we refer to diplomats we mean all those who serve in the diplomatic corps. They can be career diplomats or politically-appointed ones. Both, also under international law, would be defined as diplomats.

However, when we speak of diplomacy our range of reference broadens beyond the term diplomats.


Well, let us go back to the example we dwelt upon above regarding the meeting between the President Nixon and Prime Miniser Sato. Both were involved in diplomacy, but neither was a diplomat. They were both politicians; yes, engaged in diplomacy at the highest level, but that did not turn them into diplomats.

That’s why when we speak of a sub-culture of diplomacy, particularly in the context of intercultural communication, we should be aware that it encompasses — at least — both diplomats and politicians. Thus, the chances of problems emerging due to cultural differences might be even greater in a sub-culture of diplomacy than in a sub-culture of diplomats.

Certainly, diplomats can serve as facilitators in intercultural communication by clarifying and explaining — and here we go back to the beginning of the article — the intention of one party to another so as to avoid as far as possible any mistaken interpretation.

Glenn Fischer, a former US diplomat, who has devoted his time to studying this topic, has said, based both on his diplomatic experience and academic studies, that the greater the cultural differences of the parties involved in a diplomatic dialogue, the greater the risks of intercultural communication problems.

Professor Raymond Cohen, one of the foremost experts on this topic, wrote that US diplomats who have served in countries such as Britain, France or Germany tend to stress problems arising from intercultural communication to a considerably lesser extent than diplomats who have served in countries such as Iraq, Afghanistan or China. In other words, the wider the cultural gap of the country a US diplomat has served in with the United States, the greater the stress he or she would place on problems in intercultural communication in diplomacy.

We should stress a conceptual truth about culture which forms the basis of any discussion on intercultural communication: Culture is an attribute of a society that is transmitted to an individual by a process of socialization and acculturation. In other words, when we talk about culture, we refer to a characteristic of a society. We can talk of a Japanese or a Spanish culture. The individual does not possess a distinctive culture of his/her own, but the culture of the society to which he/she belongs.

Finally, a comment about humour and intercultural communication in international diplomacy:

Philip Habib, who served in high-ranking posts in the US State Department, has said that, based on his own diplomatic experience, and contrary to what is widely believed, humour can actually serve as a bridge between different cultures.

He relates how a Japanese audience would burst into laughter at hearing a typically “American” joke, notwithstanding the prevailing gaps between the two cultures. Humour, even a culturally-rooted one, can thus facilitate international diplomacy.

This is certainly a remarkable, indeed encouraging, finding that ought to make us aware not only of the problems besetting intercultural communication in diplomacy, but also of the means in facilitating it.End.

American Diplomacy is the Publication of Origin for this work. Permission to republish is freely granted with credit and a link back to American Diplomacy.


imageDr. Yoav J. Tenembaum lectures at the Diplomacy Programme, University of Tel Aviv. He holds a doctorate in modern history from the University of Oxford, a master’s degree in international relations from Cambridge University and an undergraduate degree in modern history from the University of Tel Aviv. His writings have been published in the United States, Argentina, Spain and Israel. He was born in Argentina and has lived in the United States and Britain as well as Israel. He is vice-president of the International Raoul Wallenberg Foundation.


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